Auster memoir continues in a Report from the Interior

Just over a year ago I reviewed Paul Auster’s Winter Journal on and reflected on Auster’s ability to explore universal experience by focusing on the individual. Auster’s latest book, Report from the Interior, takes his exploration a step further by focusing on memories of his inner life from childhood, through his teens and early twenties, not because Auster believes that that he is in some way unique or exceptional but rather because he believes that he isn’t — that his experience is similar to that of every man — and therefore universal.

This raises interesting issues such as the extent to which memory is reliable and unique and how it is shaped or influenced by later remembrances.

While there is a sweetness in Auster’s recollection of childhood beliefs or the confusion and loneliness of his early twenties, this focus on the universal occasionally skirts close to the banal — but perhaps that is the point.

Report from the Interior consists of four sections:

  1. Report from the Interior which recalls childhood and adolescent memories using the second person voice;
  2. Two Blows to the Head which describes two movies that influenced Auster;
  3. Time Capsule comprising extracts from letters written by Auster to his first wife before their marriage;
  4. Album, a collection of photographs illustrating events contemporaneous with the first three sections.

Auster’s addresses the first section to his younger self using the second person — ‘you’ — as he did in the Winter Journal. Perhaps because inner thoughts are more intimate or individual than physical experience, this use of the second person is unsettling and occasionally distracting. Who is ‘you’? Auster himself? You, the reader? You, the universal man?

The second section, ‘Two Blows to the Head’, sets out descriptions of the movies The Incredible Shrinking Man and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang which are skilfully written and very visual.

Then Auster moves on to draw on emotive letters he wrote to his first wife before their marriage in the section entitled ‘Time Capsule’. This section reveals a somewhat depressed, lonely young man who is none the less developing growing confidence in his writing ability.

The book closes out with an Album of photographs drawn from various sources that illustrate the reminiscences set out in the earlier sections.

Readers who are of Auster’s generation — particularly those who were bookish children — are likely to find many resonances with their own childhood memories in Report from the Interior  

Report from the Interior is published by Henry Holt & Company. ISBN 9780805098570. [Disclosure: an advance copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review].

Margaret Thatcher : Harris’s biography sheds light on what made her tick

Friends were surprised when they heard I was reading a Margaret Thatcher biography. But for readers of my generation, Margaret Thatcher is an iconic figure. Selected as the Conservative candidate for Finchley in 1958, the next twenty years saw her stature grow. In 1979 following the Conservatives’ election victory she became the first woman British Prime Minister.

In common with many women who break through the glass ceiling, Thatcher believed in succeeding through merit. She thought other women could achieve what she had through hard work, persistence and sheer determination.

Her life story — particularly her public life — is well known and there are few surprises in Robin Harris’s well-researched and documented Margaret Thatcher biography.

Harris works through Thatcher’s early life in Grantham explaining the influence of her father, the role religion played in the household, her early years in the Conservative party.

Period as Prime Minister

The events of her period as Prime Minister are then covered in detail with some illuminating insights into her leadership and thinking for example, her views on war as evidenced during the Falklands crisis.

Harris worked closely with Thatcher from 1985. He drafted speeches and advised on policy.  Consequently, he brings insider insights to this biography. His research is meticulous and the chapters in Not for Turning are richly annotated. He provides an extensive bibliography with interesting observations on the sources referenced.

Sympathetic but not blind to Thatcher’s faults, it is Harris’s insights into her personal traits that I found most interesting. For example, women readers particularly may be struck by her preoccupation with the ordinary challenges of managing family relationships — including the financial troubles of her adult children — general financial worries, health issues, concerns about her husband and so on. Likewise her struggle to keep her weight under control which saw her choose to drink whiskey and soda because it has fewer calories than her preferred gin and tonic.

Late career

However, it Harris’s insights into the latter part of Thatcher’s career that are perhaps the most interesting. The facts from the period are perhaps less well known. He discusses the years after she left office and her subsequent declining health. I was particularly interested in his take on Thatcher’s regard for Tony Blair and her apparent sympathy for the controversial General Pinochet.

Harris’s treatment of Thatcher’s decline — her health issues and the indignities of age — is sensitive and empathetic.

At the outset of the book, Harris explains that his objective in writing Not for Turning was to describe what Margaret Thatcher was like. He sought to explain what she was trying to do and why and to assess the consequences. In my view, he has achieved this.

Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher by Robin Harris is published by St Martin’s Press. ISBN 9781250047151. [Disclosure: An Advance Reader’s Copy was provided by Netgalley].


The tragic love story that triggered World War I

The name  Franz Ferdinand is familiar to students of the first World War but less well known is the tragic love story of  the Austrian Archduke and his wife, Sophie.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo in an incident that led to the outbreak of war. While many people associate the Archduke’s name with the outbreak of the Great War, much less well known is the story of the royal romance.

The Archduke married for love against the wishes of his uncle, the emperor. Franz Ferdinand’s wife, Sophie, was seen as his inferior -and often publicly humiliated. But in this history of their relationship, authors Greg King and Sue Woolmans suggest the couple remained close throughout their marriage and were sustained by their love and by family life.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie had three children — Max, Ernst and Sophie — whose lives would never be the same after the events in Sarajevo. Indeed  these children were to suffer further tragedy and loss during the two world wars.

For anyone with an interest in history or who enjoys reading about royal romances, The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King and Sue Woolmans is a sympathetic and human insight into a period of great change.

Published by St Martin’s Press, September 2013. ISBN 9781250000163. [Disclosure: An advance review copy was provided via]